The Sani-Can Crew Fights Alaska’s Bone-Chilling Cold And High Disposal Costs To Keep On Pumping

Rugged terrain, bone-chilling cold and high disposal costs provide ample challenges for a hardy crew of pumpers in North Pole, Alaska.
The Sani-Can Crew Fights Alaska’s Bone-Chilling Cold And High Disposal Costs To Keep On Pumping

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Facing the challenging Alaska climate and running a business solo, Ronnie Ashbach has built Sani-Can/Lemeta Pumping & Thawing into a thriving company. As she looks ahead a few years, Ronnie is making sure Sani-Can is wrapped and ready to pass on to a new generation.

The company is located near North Pole, Alaska, in suburban Fairbanks. While the community is often lashed by vicious cold and wicked winter storms, it’s located about 1,700 miles south of the actual pole.

“Our first business in Fairbanks was a feed store catering to clients who operated dog sleds,” says Ronnie. “It was a seasonal business because the dog mushers go away in summer, so we were looking for something to do in the summer. One of our feed store vendors showed us there was an appetite for another portable restroom provider in Fairbanks. My then-husband Greg had a construction background, so it wasn’t too much of a stretch for us.”

RESTROOMS, THEN SEPTIC SERVICE

The couple started with a dozen units and added an old GMC vacuum truck. As the workload grew, they closed the feed store in 1990. By then, the company routinely employed one or two drivers. Sani-Can moved to its current location on a larger property in North Pole about 10 years ago. Ronnie and her husband went their separate ways in 2008 and she subsequently bought out the business.

“It was a little overwhelming to take control of the company,” she says. “But I had the support of my children Amy, who is now 31, and Peter, who is 28. I had one on each side holding me up.”

In 2009, Sani-Can purchased the local Lemeta Pumping & Thawing. Today, the company serves a radius of about 125 miles from Fairbanks for regular service, but will go as far as the Brooks Range, 300 miles to the north, to serve contracts. Its clients include military installations, resource operations such as gold mines, construction sites, weddings and other events. The largest event is a local air show requiring 65 units.

“About 20 percent of our clients are individual homeowners who use portable restrooms,” says Ronnie. “They typically live in cabins without running water.”

RIGS READY FOR SERVICE

The company bought its first septic service truck a dozen years ago – a 1991 International 4900 with a 2,300-gallon steel tank and Masport pump from Erickson Tank & Pump.

“We began by servicing Sani-Can customers and it grew from there, so that septic tank pumping now forms about 25 percent of the business,” says Ronnie.

The company employs 10 people, including Amy and son-in-law Shaun Barlow. Son Peter now works with his father who operates a Mr. Rooter franchise. The two companies cooperate amiably, referring work to each other.

The company fields eight vacuum trucks. Sani-Can’s three septic service trucks include: the original 1991 International; a 2006 Freightliner, with a 3,600-gallon U.S. Tanks steel tank and Jurop/Chandler pump from National Truck Center; and a 1999 Sterling Acterra with a 3,500-gallon steel tank and Jurop/Chandler pump.

The portable sanitation fleet includes: a 2013 International TerraStar, with a Workmate 700-gallon waste/dual 175-gallon freshwater steel tank and Masport pump from FMI Trucks Sales & Service; and a 2011 Ford F-550 with a 650 waste/200- and 100-gallon freshwater stainless steel tanks and Masport pump from Coleman Vacuum Tank. The remaining three trucks feature slide-in stainless steel tanks from Best Enterprises with Honda pumps: a 2010 Ford F-250 with 200 gallons waste/125 freshwater; a 2008 Sterling Bullet 55 with 400 gallons waste/200 freshwater; and a 2004 Mitsubishi Fuso with 200 gallons waste/125 gallons freshwater.

On the septic side, refurbished trucks built pre-2008 make a good fit for the company fleet. Ronnie says cold weather can play havoc with newer emissions systems, so she’s always looking for a good used buy.

The recent septic service fleet addition, a 2006 Freightliner, attracts the most attention in a town named North Pole. It’s decked out with a candy cane red paint job. Shaun and Amy picked it up at National Truck Center in Miami and drove it to the 2014 Pumper & Cleaner Environmental Expo International to be exhibited on the show floor.

“Shaun did all the driving to Indianapolis,” says Amy. “I don’t have a real taste for driving the big rigs. After the Expo, we then drove it to Minneapolis and another family member picked it up and drove it to Fairbanks.”

CHALLENGING TERRAIN, WEATHER

The landscape is rough and rugged, particularly on regional unpaved roads.

“When trucks return from mine service with typical excess muck, the standard joke around the garage is that we’ll pan the mud for gold dust,” Shaun says. “Worse are half-million-dollar houses with $5 driveways. They’re unpaved and feature steep hills and switchbacks and are really hard on our equipment.”

The fleet and drivers are managed by 10-year veteran Jake Janke.

The portable restroom fleet numbers roughly 500 units and growing. Most units are from PolyJohn Enterprises. Rounding out the inventory are wheelchair-accessible units from Satellite Industries and a Porta-Lisa restroom trailer from JAG Mobile Solutions.

Sani-Can also builds its own line of Arctic restrooms to withstand extreme weather conditions. The units feature PolyJohn interiors and steel frames. Foam insulating panels are sandwiched between the interior and new exterior plastic hulls. Sani-Can usually keeps a half-dozen of these models in stock, some holding up to four restroom units within the framework.

“One of the big differences between a portable restroom business in Alaska and the lower 48 is that it’s more expensive to operate them here,” Ronnie says. “Freeze-thaw cycles kill them and we have the added expenses of salt and de-icers. If you can get 200 uses out of a portable restroom in the summer you can only get 100 out of them in a typical winter.”

BUILDING THE WINTER MARKET

One of the company’s strategies to expand the portable restroom side of the business is an emphasis on increased customer education.

“One of our big accomplishments is explaining that restrooms can be used in the winter and that we can keep them working if we do our job,” says Ronnie. “It’s definitely keeping us busier in the winter time.”

There’s more competition in septic pumping than thawing, but Ronnie wants to cut a larger share of the pie in both markets by offering superior customer service.

“We get a lot of septic tank service calls as winter approaches,” Shaun says. “We’re often doing six to seven houses a weekend and working 70-hour weeks when the chains are already on the tires.”

Sani-Can uses QuickBooks for accounting and RouteOptix software products for truck routing. It counts on word-of-mouth and its website to generate most of its business.

“The Yellow Pages are declining in importance, but people still go to them, so we do too,” Ronnie says.

LOOKING AHEAD

Sani-Can may construct a new shop large enough to keep all trucks warm indoors, which would make dispatching easier. “Right now, the trucks are stacked so we have to move them around to dispatch,” Ronnie says. Adding stalls would make it easier to choose and send the right truck for each job without juggling the vehicles.

Shaun is also looking into dewatering equipment to help beat the high cost of municipal septic disposal. With the right treatment, septic waste can be legally applied on the ground as fertilizer.

Ronnie is planning to hand the business baton to Amy and Shaun. She says she hopes to complete the transition in five to seven years, and then keep her hand in the business by helping out during the busy summer season.

“When we started this company, I never knew how much fun it would be to operate,” she says. “Passing it on to the next generation is just as fun and rewarding.”

MORE INFORMATION

Best Enterprises, Inc. - 800/288-2378 - www.bestenterprises.net

Coleman Vacuum Tank - 800/645-1136

Erickson Tank & Pump LLC - 509/785-2955 - www.ericksontank.com

FMI Truck Sales & Service - 800/927-8750 - www.fmitrucks.com

Honda Power Equipment Group - 678/339-2600 - www.powerequipment.honda.com

JAG Mobile Solutions, Inc. - 800/815-2557 - www.jagmobilesolutions.com

Jurop/Chandler - 800/342-0887 - www.chandlerequipment.com

Masport, Inc. - 800/228-4510 - www.masportpump.com

Mr. Rooter - 888/225-0322 - www.mrrooterfranchise.com

National Truck Center - 305/691-8407 - www.nationaltruckcenter.com

PolyJohn Enterprises, Inc. - 800/292-1305 - www.polyjohn.com

RouteOptix Inc. - 866/926-7849 - www.routeoptix.com

Satellite Industries - 800/328-3332 - www.satelliteindustries.com



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